Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Butterfly Phase

For its first few years, the garden had multiple milkweed species and other plants to attract butterflies (this is why we were planting dill next to coreopsis).  The only non-butterfly plants we purchased were two pink daylilies (and that was Trixie's idea, the genius of which I didn't appreciate at the time).  We quickly concentrated our efforts on Monarchs, bought more milkweed, and moved some of the non-Monarch plants in other parts of the yard (except the daylilies).  Soon, we were tagging hundreds of butterflies as part of the Monarch Watch Program.  

You might ask, why make invidious distinctions among butterflies?  What's so special about Monarchs?  Well, Monarchs have a migration pattern that's longer in time and distance than any other type of butterfly.  They also do things that a significant number of other pollinators do, so understanding Monarchs is the key to understanding the health and environment for pollinators in general. Our food security depends on ecosystems that have healthy pollinator populations, so understanding Monarchs is important for broad conservation efforts.  Like orchids being an apex plants, one can make a similar argument for Monarchs as apex bugs.

The Vision Statement of Monarch Watch is:
"In recognition of the rapid loss of habitats and resources needed by monarch butterflies in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, our vision is the preservation of the monarch migration will require stewardship by the governments and private citizens of all three countries. We all must work together to create, conserve, and protect monarch habitats. Sustaining monarch habitats will have the effect of protecting vital pollinators and other wildlife."

Butterfly gardening the Monarch Watch way also offers several unique delights.  The emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis is an incomparable sight.  Finding baby Monarch caterpillars on the undersides of plants is definitely more exciting than it sounds.  We were thrilled to learn that four of our butterflies made it to Rosario, Mexico -- over 1,300 miles from us -- and were picked up by Monarch Watch employees.  Three of them were picked up on the same day by three separate tag collectors.

But it's a lot of work.  The garden needs to be full of plants from the genus Asclepias (milkweed) in order to attract the proper number of Monarchs.  In addition to several big plants in the main garden, we grew dozens of smaller milkweed plants from seed in order to feed the caterpillars we housed each summer.  We discovered that Monarchs especially loved Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed.  They didn't as care much for butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), despite its enticing name.  The Monarch butterflies are attracted by the tiny clusters of milkweed flowers, while Monarch caterpillars eat and live on the milkweed leaves.  Every year of the Butterfly Phase, aphids found the swamp milkweed by late September and made a disgusting mess of things.  

Our operation might have been sustainable if the cats weren't so lazy.  After cleaning up after the cats day in and day out, the thought of cleaning up after forty caterpillars sharing an outdoor tent in the August sun became less and less appealing.  It's all the cats' fault.  We've always had a place for the Monarchs in our garden, though.  You can usually find Monarchs on our orange butterfly milkweed in September.  It's not the Monarchs' favorite, but the aphids avoid it, so we've kept it in the mix.         

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